If “Fahrenheit 9/11” is the firestorm of documentaries about the American way, then “America’s Heart & Soul” is the Hallmark card.
Yet this unabashedly feel-good movie by director Louis Schwartzberg is packed with substance beneath its glossy surface.
Cynics might scoff that the real Americans he profiles are walking, talking Norman Rockwell paintings who exist in self-secluded fringes far removed from most Americans’ harsh, humdrum lives.
The collective spirit of these portraits makes for an uplifting infomercial on the limitless variations of the American dream, however.
The film may only hint at the seamy flipside of that dream, but so what? Unadulterated decency so rarely finds a place in Hollywood, so “America’s Heart & Soul” is a welcome counterpoint to the sardonic tone that underscores much of contemporary cinema.
A cinematographer known for sumptuous landscapes and velvety commercials, Schwartzberg loads “America’s Heart & Soul” with breathtaking images of that sea-to-shining-sea purple majesty we hear about in song. It’s as slick as the slickest of Nike ads but presented in an earthy cause with no commercial aim.
Told in segments of a few minutes each, the film offers snapshots of about two dozen people Schwartzberg encountered while traveling the country with a small film crew in 2000 and 2001.
Some have achieved a degree of fame and notoriety, such as Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen or champion aerobatic plane pilot Patty Wagstaff. Others are mainly local characters, such as daredevil Manhattan bicycle messenger John “Yac” Yacobellis, Kentucky rug weaver Minnie Yancey or Colorado cowboy Roudy Roudebush, who rides his horse into the local saloon.
Schwartzberg travels to West Virginia to talk with disillusioned but resilient steelworkers worried about overseas competition. He visits Mississippi gospel singer Mosie Burks, who raised her six younger siblings after their mother died. He hangs with Vermont dairy farmer George Woodard, an amateur actor, musician and filmmaker whose sums up his work ethic this way: “The thing about working seven days a week is you don’t have to worry about going back to work on Monday when Sunday comes.”
Charles Jimmie Sr., a Tlingit Indian elder in Alaska, speaks mystically of his father as an eagle, his mother as a raven. Amelia Rudolph of Muir Beach, Calif., leads her Bandaloop Cliff Dancers through dazzling routines of gravity defiance while suspended off mountainsides. Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer of New York City talks about injecting James Brown and Jimi Hendrix influences into his Jewish music traditions.
The profiles all were shot before the Sept. 11 attacks, so there is no trace of the dark cloud of terrorism that has gripped the country since. Schwartzberg rightly says that lends the film a more timeless air, though people watching it in a post-Sept. 11 world might feel the slightest of pauses over its unbridled optimism.
Along with the eclectic mix of tunes performed by his on-screen subjects, Schwartzberg assembles a killer soundtrack including songs from Smash Mouth, John Hiatt and John Mellencamp, who wrote a theme song specifically for “America’s Heart & Soul.”
New Orleans trumpeter James Andrews III — playing alongside his brother, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews — sums up the film’s theme with this simple declaration: “My name is James Andrews. This is my neighborhood, and these are my people.”
Schwartzberg has crafted a joyously inclusive celebration of an American way of life that includes all ways of life.